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Test Kitchen: How to open a street food business

12th November 2019

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“The street food scene was something that Windsor was really missing,” says Milly Foley, co-founder of Test Kitchen gourmet food van. “When I got pregnant I knew I didn’t want to be in London, I wanted to move back to Windsor where I grew up. With John being a chef and us having a kid, it made sense.”

Milly, 34, and her boyfriend John O’Connor, 34, did a trial run of the food van in 2017. “It wasn’t a full-time effort because I’d just had a baby but it’s got fully off the ground this year. We take private bookings and have a residency at the Windsor & Eton Brewery on Friday evenings.”

Milly smiles as she leans out of the food van
Milly Foley, co-founder of Test Kitchen food van

Test Kitchen changes its menu weekly but staple dishes include Berkshire beef burgers, gin-cured salmon with marinated fennel and coconut curry with crispy shallots and coriander.

Where to pitch your food van

In Hollywood films, food vans seem to pitch up, tweet where they are and watch the crowd gather. The reality in the UK is that each council has strict regulations around trading on public land which often restricts where British food vans can trade.

“We envisaged being able to trade anywhere but the street trading licence isn’t suited to mobile vehicles - you get a permit for one location which defeats the point of being mobile and they charge you per location so it’s not suited for small businesses,” she explains.

“It was a shock because that’s what our business plan was based around - I knew which areas in Windsor would work. But it was going to be too much faff. Pretty quickly, we shifted to private events and residencies on private land, then all you need is your food hygiene and public liability insurance.”

Other than licences, the benefit of private events such as weddings or parties is greater certainty over customer numbers. “In our test year, we did events where the organiser tells you 5000 people will attend. You pay a pitch fee and then there’s one lonely punter that has no plans on buying anything at all. We don’t do those any more - our ingredients are really expensive because they’re really high quality.”

Buying local and seasonal

Test Kitchen designs its menu around seasonal produce. “John’s got a great connection with a local farm,” she says. “Our bestseller is a Super Bon Bon - it’s a really thick cut pork loin from the Royal farm heavily marinated in garlic and white wine and thyme, cooked on the grill, served with french fries, fried mushrooms, melted cheddar and fresh aioli - all in a toasted ciabatta.”

A delicious looking burger
Test Kitchen serves seasonal food made with gourmet ingredients

Test Kitchen is number one for Cheap Eats in Windsor on TripAdvisor, which is rare for a food van without a permanent location. “We’re really lucky to have a really loyal customer base. We get loads of repeat business and they’re not scared to tell us what they think - 99% percent of the time it’s positive, people care when they know it’s just John and I.”

Milly manages the social media, marketing and organisation of events. John creates the menus and cooks and they work together to serve customers.

“In the heat of the summer, we’re getting bookings all the time - there’s no way you could do anything else. But it’s very seasonal so you’ve got to squirrel money away for the winter. Things won’t pick up again for us until May time but we keep social media going.” During the off-season, Milly runs SupperClub Windsor and John works in local restaurants.

Banking on the go

Test Kitchen uses Starling to manage its business finances and process invoices through Xero. “In my head I always thought you had to pay for a business account,” she says. “It seemed like such a daunting, serious thing. I didn’t know if we were a business that needed one. But then I came across a blog and Starling jumped out. It was super easy to apply and surprisingly stress free.”

A navy blue Starling business card
Test Kitchen manages its finances with Starling Bank

“It’s handy that it exports data to Xero in real time and I like that if you buy something and categorise it as entertainment, next time you buy something, it remembers that category. The other day I thought I’d lost the card but I found that I could lock my card from the app while I figured out where it was - it was in another purse - so I didn’t have to order a new card. Customer services is also always easy through the chat function,” she says.

Making business plans

Their dream is to find a space for a restaurant where they could have live music and serve cocktails and tapas-style small plates. “The food will change slightly but we’ll use all the same suppliers. But everything takes longer than you think - I wish I’d known how hard it would be to find premises,” she says.

For those wanting to start a food business, her advice is to know your brand and your customers. “Figure out how you want to be seen. If you’re not sure, no one else will be sure either,” she says. “It depends on the individual but we’re not keen on the whole food fad thing - they go as soon as they come. Think about the food you want to eat and cook, find good produce and have a bit of passion for what you do.”

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